Protesters arrested Sunday at the Occupy D.C. encampment in McPherson Square will be arraigned this afternoon in District of Columbia Superior Court, following a confrontation with U.S. Park Police over a now-dismantled wooden structure built in the park.
Washington solo practitioner Jeffrey Light, who has been working with the demonstrators, said he is also planning to file a request for a temporary restraining order against Park Police today in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, after getting word yesterday that police planned to remove some tents. Following a late-night exchange with on-call U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, Light agreed to hold off after receiving assurances that tents would not be moved overnight.
The 10-plus-hour stand-off began Sunday at around noon, when Park Police told demonstrators to dismantle a wooden structure they'd built around midnight. Light said they built the temporary structure to keep warm.
Police cordoned off the area around the structure, and a group of 15 protesters were arrested between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and charged with crossing a police line. Later, another 16 protesters were arrested and charged with refusing to obey police orders to leave the shelter. Both charges are minor offenses that carry a maximum penalty of fines. One demonstrator who urinated from the structure’s roof is also facing a public indecency charge.
More than half of the protesters were released with the option of “post-and-forfeit,” meaning they can pay a bond and then forfeit it, waiving their right to appear in court. The rest of the arrestees will decide how to proceed after Monday's arraignment, Light said.
Relations between the Occupy D.C. demonstrators and police have been positive for the most part, so the arrests marked an unusual turn of events, Light said. He has been working with McPherson Square demonstrators through the National Lawyers Guild, which is coordinating legal aid for Occupy protests nationwide. In a departure from other cities’ handling of Occupy encampments, the Park Police have not tried to evict McPherson Square demonstrators since they began occupying in early October.
“The way everything played out yesterday just seemed like such an excessive use of the police,” Light said. “To have so many police officers in riot gear, a SWAT team, horses, armored vehicles, everything like that over this wooden structure...just seems so excessive.”
A spokesman for the Park Police did not immediately return a request for comment.
Ann Wilcox, another solo practitioner working with the McPherson Square demonstrators, said she doesn’t think the arrests are a sign that the larger movement is under threat. “We’re just going to continue monitoring, providing legal services if we need to. That’s really our job,” she said. “We might increase the level of our presence just a bit, just to see how things are going. We anticipate that they’ll keep going smoothly.”
Light said Monday morning that he was preparing to file a request for a temporary restraining order today against the Park Police. He said an officer told him on Sunday that they were considering removing tents within the cordoned-off area near the structure, so Light contacted Boasberg, the on-call judge, at around 10 p.m.
At around 1 a.m., Light heard from Boasberg that the U.S. attorney’s office was in touch with Park Police and that no tents would be taken down overnight. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office was not immediately available for comment. When Light does file the request, the case will be randomly assigned to a judge; Boasberg served as the emergency contact.
A separate Occupy D.C.-related gathering is located in Freedom Plaza. Those demonstrators have a permit and operate separate from the McPherson Square group. Bethesda, Md.-based solo practitioner Mark Goldstone, who is working with the Freedom Plaza group, said he doesn’t expect Sunday’s arrests to affect the the Freedom Plaza demonstrators, because they haven’t built any structures.
An inspector from the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs declared the McPherson Square shelter unsafe following a visual inspection on Sunday, an agency spokesman, Helder Gil, said. One of the main problems with the structure was that it wasn’t attached to anything that would give it structural support, Gil said. Wilcox was on-site during the inspection and said that it was stable.
Park Police disassembled the structure by around 10 p.m. on Sunday, Wilcox said.